Mathematics DoodlesA few weeks ago, I put up a post on my blog that took the form of a physics question and the math it took to come to the answer. The question related to how fast a spaceship I’m developing for a story would have to spin to simulate earth gravity. The answer is pretty damn fast, but not nearly fast enough to do any long term harm to the occupants. It’s the sort of thing I do every now and then when writing a story. That picture to the right are some geometry doodles I did in order to determine the apparent difference in the size of the sun when viewed on Earth and on Venus for a story set on the latter. Then I remembered the constant cloud cover and realized it was all moot.

Some of this comes from doing a lot of math when I was in school. I actually ran out of math classes in high school, scored a 5 on the AP Calculus test as a junior, and in college came within four credits of a math minor before realizing I just didn’t want to take another math class. I’ve been known to do long division for fun. On the road I’ll take the numbers in license plates and figure out if they’re divisible by three, and what the answer is if they are. Math is something that, when I do it on my terms, I find fun. The only reason I stopped where I did in college is that I wasn’t doing it on my terms. It wasn’t fun anymore.

In this way math is very much like fiction writing for me. I love writing on my own terms, but when I started trying to impose upon myself the regimen of writing a flash fiction piece every other week, it fell apart. But that’s not what this is about, that’s only a little observation.

Instead, this is about the physics equations I worked my way through in that post. This is about the geometry on that folded up sheet of paper. The reason why I did either is because I wanted to make sure I had good science behind my science fiction.

It’s one of those constant debates within science fiction. When you’re putting the word “science” right there in the name of your genre, how much of the science has to be right? The answer is, often, very little. And that’s well and good. Just watch an episode of Star Trek and you’ll see several things that may always be impossible from a scientific standpoint. Faster-than-light travel. Matter transportation. Being able to dodge the beam of a laser weapon. This is space opera and soft science fiction, opiates for the masses. And fun ones, don’t think for a second I’m knocking it.

But it’s true others want to see a lot more science in their science fiction. Forget the impossible, they want to see a vision of the future based on what we know can and cannot be done. This is hard science fiction.

There are shades of grey in between, there always are. Some writers have even managed space opera within a harder science fiction setting. However, the question becomes: which are you writing? Which do you want to write? It’s not a question that I think a lot of writers specifically ask themselves when they sit down to craft a manuscript, but it’s a good question to know the answer to. In mineralogy there’s the Mohs scale of hardness, ranging from talc at 1 to diamond at 10. If we were to posit a Mohs scale for science fiction hardness, where would our favorite novels, shows, or movies end up? What would be 1 on the scale? What would be 10? And where do you want your story to fall?

For that last question, there is no right answer. There is only the caveat that if the story is trying to be higher on the scale, then the story is going to come under greater scrutiny. The more that you point out, through the narrative, that you’ve worked out the science, the more readers and viewers will expect out of the story going forward. I’m still answering that question for my own story, and it comes down to how much classical mechanics I want to relearn.

As for the other questions? I’d like to see your thoughts in the comments. Personally, I’d probably put Star Wars down at the 1, with Star Trek around 2 or 3, and Serenity/Firefly more like 5 or 6. Thoughts on setting the extremes, or disagree with my placements? Let me know.

About the author

DLThurston DL Thurston is a writer of novels, screenplays, and the occasional short story. He has short stories due out soon in the Steam Works anthology from Hydra Publications and in The Memory Eater. When he's not writing, he also brews beer and even drinks it sometimes. Check out his exploits either on his blog or on Twitter.